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Raptors & Shorebirds: Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge, Nov. 18, 2017

November 20, 2017

Western Grebes (Larry Loeher 11-18-17)

The final trip list remained full up to the last minute, but at check-in time at 8 a.m. at the Seal Beach Naval Weapons Station outer parking lot, we were missing a couple of people.  That was unfortunate for those who missed out on this very birdy trip!  Moments after we were driven through the security gate, we got a great view of a big, beautiful Red-tailed hawk perched in a bare tree.

At the first stop, directly across the road from the Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge’s Nature Center, hundreds of shorebirds were roosting: Black-bellied Plovers, Long-billed Curlews, Western and Least Sandpipers, Marbled Godwits, Red Knots, Ruddy Turnstones, Short/Long-billed Dowitchers (*see end note), Western Grebes on the water, and we were treated to the unique dance of a Reddish Egret.  In small bushes just a few feet in front of us were the first of many Savannah Sparrows, Black and Say’s Phoebes, and a friendly Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher.

One pair each of Northern Pintail and Long-billed Curlew (Joyce Waterman 11-18-17)

Trying to time our best views with high tide, we headed towards Hog Island in search of Nelson’s Sparrow, but along the drive, there were just too many other birds to pass by: Osprey, Belted Kingfisher, Peregrine Falcon, and majestic Great Blue Herons at every turn.

And we made quite a few turns: by best count five rights, three lefts, four straights, and many pauses and stops, until we came to the Burrowing Owl stop.

Burrowing Owl crouches in his tiny bomb crater (Joyce Waterman 11-18-17)

We found the Burrowing Owl in what looked like a tiny bomb crater – a ground squirrel “blowout hole” we were told – and discovered how difficult it is to help people find an owl sitting on the nearly-barren ground only two or three car lengths away. Estimates of distance to the bird varied: 20 feet, 40 feet and 70 feet were among those offered. The owl was quite pale, bleached by the sun. Some were surprised to see an owl out and about in the daytime. “Why isn’t it sleeping in its burrow?” It’s a diurnal owl; it feeds in the day and sleeps at night. Like us.

Burrowing Owl steps out and looks around (Larry Loeher 11-18-17)

Almost immediately thereafter, a small flock of Western Meadowlarks were spotted as we crossed over a set of rusty railroad tracks. We again had difficulty arriving a an appropriate description of location and distance, and in the process several birders happened upon a Rock Wren doing “squat jumps” on the tracks before moving to a post.

Rock Wren, with faint peach wash on flanks (Larry Loeher 11-18-17)

They do this, some believe, to create better depth perception. By superimposing a slightly different view of the scenery – from the bottom of the “squat” – upon the slightly earlier view, they create the illusion of depth, much as humans do with simultaneous views from our wider-set eyes. Other species create the same effect with tail wagging, butt-bobbing, head tilting, or – as with pigeons – head bobbing.

After a few more stops for Kestrels and Peregrine Falcons, we arrived at Hog Island, a First American shell midden. In early EuroAmerican settler days, it was used for a while as a pig pen. Pigs don’t (we were told) like to swim, so they’d gather on the island when the tide rose, making it easy to round them up.

We couldn’t find the Nelson’s (Sharp-tailed) Sparrows which often winter here, but found plenty of Savannah Sparrows of Belding’s and the little-known Large-billed subspecies, plus Common Yellowthroats and Marsh Wrens. Among the distant ducks were Surf Scoters and Buffleheads.

Savannah Sparrows: left – beldingi left (L. Loeher) right – beldingi or nevadensis
Both 11/18/17 Seal Beach NWR (Left – L. Loeher; right – J. Waterman)

Chuck felt that both the above birds were Belding’s Savannah Sparrow, with the right bird possibly a young bird. Local ornithologist Kimball Garrett agreed, but added that the right bird might be the nevadensis subspecies of the common Savannah Sparrow.

According to a paper by Garrett in Studies of Western Birds (2008):

On the coast, [the Large-Billed Savannah Sparrow Passerculus sandwichensis rostratus] formerly occurred rarely north to Santa Cruz; historical status along the lower Colorado River of California is uncertain. In the mid 20th century, overall numbers declined sharply and the range retracted along the coast and at the Salton Sea; since the 1980s, numbers have increased somewhat and much of the former range has been reoccupied.

Breeding habitat of rostratus is specialized. It is nearly limited to open, low salt marsh vegetation, including grasses (Spartina, Distichlis), pickleweed (Salicornia spp.), and iodine bush (Allenrolfea spp.), around the mouth of the Colorado River and adjacent coastlines of the uppermost Gulf of California; less typical breeding habitat is Frankenia-dominated scrub on the inland borders of beaches. Rostratus nests mainly in March and April in Sonora, but nest building there has been noted as late as 20 June.

Rostratus is almost entirely restricted to shorelines within its California nonbreeding range. Accounts of wintering birds in coastal southern California from days of former abundance emphasized use of salt marshes, beaches, kelp wracks, wharves, docks, and city streets. There are few coastal records away from salt marshes or the immediate shoreline.

For the subspecies/potential split aficionado, read this America Birding Association article, The Many Savannah Sparrows, by James D. Rising (November 2010).


Green sea turtle in the San Gabriel River (KCET Photo: Eric Austin Yee)

Retracing our route we looked in a couple of ponds for Green Sea Turtles; we spotted one, swimming along, then it went under. Then it surfaced again. You could see its shell back, and its head popping up, and even its hind flippers. The naturalists told us they frequent the nearby San Gabriel River where a power plant warms the water. Our Local ocean waters are too cold for these normally tropical and subtropical turtles. Interesting fact: green refers to the color of the turtle’s fat, not its skin or shell.

In another pond was a Brant, a dark goose with a partial white neck-ring, all by itself.

More turns: left, right, pause, straight.

Then we saw a very fast Prairie Falcon. When it landed on a pole we got out of the vehicles to get a better look. It was definitely a Prairie Falcon.

While searching for a flock of geese we found a Ferruginous Hawk. Plus a large flock of Brown-headed Cowbirds, all feeding on the ground with their tails sticking up at a 45-degree angle.

Eventually passed our starting point, we drove through a security check-point, under Pacific Coast Highway and down towards the harbor. Because no ships were loading/unloading, we could drive around the wharf area to look for the Lapland Longspur reportedly hanging out with a Horned Lark flock. In the roadside grass and reddish-tinged ice plant we found hundreds of Killdeer sitting quietly, doing nothing.

Blue-gray Gnatcatcher bounces through the brush
(Joyce Waterman 11-18-17)

We finally found the Horned Larks, cryptic and feeding on the ground. But no longspurs.

Back through the security checkpoint and to the Park HQ where we checked out the “shellacked” Green Sea Turtle, sorted through the few remaining shorebirds across the road (the tide had gone far, far out, taking the shorebirds with it) and ate lunch.

Our very special thanks to Rick Nye (Seal Beach National Wildlife Refuge Manager), Carolyn Vance (volunteer and bird expert at the Refuge), and John Fitch (volunteer and bird expert extraordinaire at the Refuge), for making our trip possible, and 100% enjoyable.

You can visit the Refuge on your own! Guided tours are held the last Saturday of every month except in December.  [Grace Murayama & Chuck Almdale]

*END NOTE  Our views of the Dowitchers were poor: into the sun, at a distance, birds resting with heads tucked. Lacking important criteria such as bill shape and eye-to-bill relationship, I drew upon my imperfect recollection of Garrett & Dunn’s Birds of Southern California: Status and Distribution (1981) which, I thought, stated that Short-billed Dowitchers (SBDO) were uncommon on the California coast in fall and winter, while Long-billed (LBDO) are common, which was the opposite of what the Refuge’s check list stated. The truth is more complex.

After re-reading the dowitcher passages and checking with co-author Kimball Garrett, I stand corrected. SBDO is common to abundant in fall and winter and may outnumber LBDO in large coastal estuaries such as: San Diego Bay (and some lesser-known estuaries in San Diego County), Upper Newport Bay, Bolsa Chica, Seal Beach, Mugu Lagoon, possibly Morro Bay. Outside of these specific large estuaries, SBDO is uncommon and LBDO is common in fall and winter.

You learn something new every day.  [Chuck Almdale]

Seal Beach NWR wetland, looking west towards the Pacific

Code No. of Sightings
 Seal Beach 1 1-10
National Wildlife Refuge 2 11-25
November 18, 2017 3 26-50
4 51-100
5 100+
Brant 1 Turkey Vulture 2
Canada Goose 2 Osprey 1
American Wigeon 3 White-tailed Kite 1
Mallard 3 Northern Harrier 1
Northern Pintail 3 Red-tailed Hawk 2
Surf Scoter 1 Ferruginous Hawk 1
Bufflehead 3 Burrowing Owl 1
Pied-billed Grebe 1 Belted Kingfisher 2
Eared Grebe 1 American Kestrel 2
Western Grebe 3 Peregrine Falcon 1
Rock Pigeon 5 Prairie Falcon 1
Mourning Dove 5 Black Phoebe 2
Anna’s Hummingbird 1 Say’s Phoebe 2
American Coot 3 Cassin’s Kingbird 1
American Avocet 1 Loggerhead Shrike 1
Black-bellied Plover 4 American Crow 2
Killdeer 5 Common Raven 1
Long-billed Curlew 4 Horned Lark 3
Marbled Godwit 4 Rock Wren 1
Ruddy Turnstone 2 House Wren H
Red Knot 2 Marsh Wren 1
Dunlin 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher 1
Least Sandpiper 2 Northern Mockingbird 1
Western Sandpiper 2 European Starling 3
Short-billed Dowitcher 3 American Pipit 2
Willet 4 House Finch 3
Greater Yellowlegs 1 California Towhee 1
Western Gull 3 Savannah Sparrow 4
Caspian Tern 1 White-crowned Sparrow 1
Forster’s Tern 3 Dark-eyed Junco 1
Double-crested Cormorant 2 Western Meadowlark 2
Brown Pelican 1 Brown-headed Cowbird 3
Great Blue Heron 3 Brewer’s Blackbird 2
Great Egret 3 Common Yellowthroat 2
Snowy Egret 2 Yellow-rumped Warbler 1
Reddish Egret 1 Totals 71

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